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(WASHINGTON) — A decision to lift the suspension of administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might occur by Friday, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

"But no indication they will stop using it?" "This Week" Co-Anchor Martha Raddatz asked Fauci.

"I really don't think so, Martha," Fauci responded, stressing that he did not want to get too far ahead of federal regulators. "I believe we'll get back with it and there might be some restrictions. Not sure what that will be, whether they'll be age or sex or whether they'll just come back with a warning of some sort."

The pause was initiated to investigate the cause of rare blood clots in women who received the J&J vaccine.

"Dr. Fauci, as you said, this is a very rare disorder. There have been six known cases of illness and one fatality out of 7 million shots. Almost all of those affected were women in the 18 to 49 age group. So why not just pause that age group and women?" Raddatz pressed.

"They want to make sure that they're not missing something," Fauci responded. "So if you're going to pause, you might as well just pause, period, and then get back into it as soon as you possibly can."

The Biden administration and federal regulators have repeatedly said that the suspension of administering the J&J vaccine shows that the system is working to ensure vaccines are safe and will have a little to no impact on the nation's vaccine rollout.

However, those assurances are not silencing the backlash from some medical experts and state and local officials who are worried the suspension will lead to an increase in vaccine hesitancy as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise again.

"Two in five Republicans in polls say they want to avoid the vaccine all together," Raddatz said. "So how do you depoliticize the vaccine? And you can reach herd immunity if that many people don't get vaccinated?"

"Well, that will be a problem, if we get a substantial proportion of people not getting vaccinated," Fauci said.

Fauci added that there are efforts to recruit more non-political figures, such as athletes, entertainers or faith leaders, to encourage the public to get vaccinated.

"When you get an overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated -- for absolutely certain, you're going to see those numbers start coming down, which will make it better for everyone," Fauci said. "Right now, we're in somewhat of a precarious position."

The weekly daily average of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is just below 70,000, up 7.7% from the previous week, according to Johns Hopkins University. On Friday alone, the U.S. reported nearly 80,000 new cases.

"That's a place you don't want to be," he said.

During a heated exchange on Capitol Hill Thursday, Fauci told lawmakers that the U.S. must get its infection rate below 10,000 new daily cases before it could safely lift COVID-19 restrictions.

"Fortunately, we're vaccinating at least 3 to 4 million people a day, and we're getting out there about 30 million vaccinations per week. That's good news. We've got to keep that up," Fauci told Raddatz on Sunday. "But we also have to make sure that people just don't throw caution to the wind and declare victory prematurely."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) — In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration amid a barrage of criticism from Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocates for maintaining a Trump-era limit on refugee admissions for now.

While President Joe Biden pledged to admit 125,000 refugees in the new fiscal year next fall, Blinken wouldn't commit to a number, telling ABC's "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz, "Look, the president's been clear about where he wants to go, but we have to be, you know, focused on what we're able to do when we're able to do it.”

That wait-and-see language from Blinken and the White House, citing the "decimated" state of the refugee resettlement program, enraged several prominent Democrats, as well as refugee resettlement agencies who said they are ready to accept Biden's pledge of 62,500 for the rest of this fiscal year.

As a result, after the White House had announced Friday that Biden would keep former President Donald Trump's historic low cap of 15,000 refugees, the administration backtracked and said it would raise the cap next month.

"We're able to start to bring people in who've been in the pipeline and who weren't able to come in. That is starting today, and we're going to revisit it in the middle of May," Blinken said.

A wave of Democrats attacked Biden's decision on Friday to sign an executive order to maintain Trump's refugee admissions cap of 15,000. Refugee resettlement agencies called it "deeply disappointing," while Democrats like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the House Progressive Caucus, shamed Biden.

"President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity. We cannot turn our back on refugees around the world, including hundreds of refugees who have already been cleared for resettlement, have sold their belongings, and are ready to board flights," Jayapal said in a statement.

Some 35,000 refugees have been vetted and approved for resettlement in the U.S., according to the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency.

With Biden's order, those resettlements can begin again, but they will be limited. After fierce criticism Friday, the White House said the administration would set a "final, increased refugee cap" next month after a few weeks of arrivals and blamed the Trump administration for leaving the program "broken," in Blinken's words.

"Based on what we've now seen from in terms of the inheritance and being able to look at what was in place, what we could put in place, how quickly we could put it in place, it's going to be very hard to meet the 62,000 number this fiscal year," he said -- the number he told Congress the administration would accept in a February notice.

"We're going to be revisiting this over the coming weeks," he added.

Refugee resettlement agencies agreed that Trump left the nation's program in tatters through funding cuts and onerous vetting measures, but they've said they could scale up quickly to meet Biden's original target of 62,500 if the administration helped provide resources.

Instead, Biden on Saturday blamed the historic number of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border for keeping the refugee cap low for now -- a reason Blinken didn't cite. While some of the same government agencies deal with both, refugees are vetted overseas and granted approval to travel to the U.S., while asylum seekers request asylum once entering U.S. territory.

The administration is also facing criticism from some Democrats and many Republicans over Biden's decision this week to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 -- nearly 20 years after the U.S. first invaded to topple the Taliban government that provided safe haven to the al-Qaida operatives who planned those attacks.

Despite intelligence chiefs warning this week of a decrease in U.S. visibility in the country, Blinken said the administration will maintain "the means to see if there is a resurgence, a reemergence of a terrorist threat from Afghanistan ... in real time, with time to take action."

Fresh from a trip to Kabul, where he met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, other Afghan officials and civil society leaders, including prominent women, Blinken also told Raddatz the administration "will take action to make sure to the best of our ability that" the Taliban respect the gains made by Afghan society, especially in the area of women's rights.

The U.S. intelligence community's annual assessment, released Wednesday, said withdrawal risks a resurgence of that terrorism threat -- and it may go undetected by U.S. forces.

"When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That is simply a fact," said CIA Director Bill Burns.

Blinken didn't dismiss those concerns but said the administration is "going to make sure that we have assets appropriately in place to see this coming, if it comes again, to see it and to be able to to deal with it."

Beyond the terrorism threat to the U.S. or others, there are strong concerns the Taliban is waiting for an American exit to topple the Afghan government. Blinken appeared to disagree, telling Raddatz, "What everyone recognizes is there's no military resolution to the conflict. So if they start something up again, they're going to be in a long war that's not in their interest."

It's unclear if the Taliban views the situation that way. Its leadership said this week that the Taliban will not participate in peace negotiations with the Afghan government until U.S. and NATO forces exit but also said the Taliban remains "committed to finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem."

Blinken said the U.S. will throw its full weight behind supporting those peace negotiations, which are supposed to restart again in the coming weeks with a summit hosted by Turkey.

"If the Taliban is going to participate in some fashion in governance, if it wants to be internationally recognized, if it doesn't want to be a pariah, it's going to have to engage in a political process," he said.

Even if that political process succeeds, there are deep concerns that with the Taliban in power in some form, the rights of women and girls and minorities will be curbed at best. But Blinken committed that U.S. diplomatic, economic and development support would be conditioned on those rights being respected.

"Any country that moves backwards on that, that tries to repress them, will not have that international recognition, will not have that international status, and indeed, we will take action to make sure to the best of our ability that they can't do that," he said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- A flag that's flown over cemeteries in Europe where Americans killed in "The Great War" are buried has been raised again over Pershing Park in Washington, the new home of the National World War I Memorial.

Located on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, the memorial was unveiled Friday in a virtual ceremony, opens to the public beginning Saturday, and marks the last of the major American wars to have a place of honor and remembrance in the nation's capital.

President Joe Biden, in remarks recorded for the virtual ceremony, honored the 4.7 million Americans who served in what at the time was called "The Great War," the first conflict on a world-wide scale.

"In some ways The Great War shifted America's thinking about ourselves and redefined our place in the world," Biden said. "We grappled with what we stood for, what we were willing to fight and die for to defend: principles of freedom and democracy," he said.

"For too long, that nationwide service has not been fully commemorated here in the nation's capital. This memorial finally will offer a chance for people to visit and reflect and to remember," Biden said. "More than 100 years has passed since World War I ended, but the legacy and courage of those Doughboys sailing off to war and the values they fought the defense still live in our nation today."

Pershing Park, where the memorial is located, is a nearly 1.8 acre space named for the legendary Gen. John J. Pershing, who commanded American Expeditionary Forces in Europe.

Designed by M. Paul Friedberg, the memorial includes an 8-foot-tall statue of Pershing, and a relief sculpture entitled, "A Soldier's Journey," depicting American soldiers who left home to fight overseas.

"The National World War I Memorial is a depiction of what happened 100 years ago, when soldiers boarded ships bound for France, determined to bring to a close, what they thought would be a war to end all wars," Daniel Dayton, executive director of the World War I Centennial Commission, said in the virtual ceremony. "By themselves they of course, couldn't end all war, but their courage and sacrifice did indeed bring a decisive end to a conflict that had killed millions."

The park features an augmented reality app, which can be used by visitors to learn more about the history of World War I. Also featured are are "information poppies," a nod to the red poppy which became a symbol those lost in the war. The poppies have QR codes that visitors can scan with cell phones for more information.

As part of the unveiling, F-22 fighter jets flew over the White House, startling many in the city unaware of the reason.

The memorial design includes a "Peace Fountain" inscribed with a quote from the American poet Archibald MacLeish, who saw action in "the war to end all wars."

"We leave you our deaths, give them their meaning, give them an end to the war and a true peace, give them a victory that ends war and a peace afterwards, give them their meaning," the inscription reads.

"We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- The shape of the Senate battlefield next year is still unfolding, with some undecided candidates staying on the sidelines for now, but financial disclosure reports from the first three months of the year could offer a glimpse into the early maneuvering by potential contenders.

One of the most vulnerable incumbents at the center of the fight over control of the chamber is Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who said he's in no hurry to decide on his future plans. He is not alone, with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the most senior Republican in the Senate, also putting off final word on his future after four decades in Congress.

The Senate GOP needs a net gain of one seat to reclaim the majority, and keeping an incumbent is preferred over a potentially chaotic primary. Looming over their chances are five retirements, which have increased the competitiveness of next year's Senate map.

A mix of open seats, special elections and redistricting in 2022 has led some prospective candidates to contemplate runs for higher office, such as in battlegrounds Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio. And the opportunity to potentially knock off a prime Republican target in Florida, too, might be drawing some House Democrats into a possible matchup.

Two GOP fields at a standstill

In Wisconsin, Johnson's indecision has left a potential Republican bench in suspension even as the pressure on him heightens, including from former President Donald Trump, who is prodding him into the race.

"He has not yet announced that he is running, and I certainly hope he does," Trump said in a statement earlier this month. "He has no idea how popular he is. Run, Ron, Run."

Standing in the way is Johnson's 2016 pledge to serve only two terms. He was first elected in 2010 and narrowly won reelection six years later. Before Trump offered the endorsement, Johnson told a local radio show in mid-March of his decision, "I don't have to make it for quite some time."

If he stays in the race, Johnson will face a roster of Democratic challengers eager to elevate his recent controversies. But the ardent Trump ally is already holding onto a significant sum that can easily keep him out of retirement, raising just over $545,000 between January and March and ending the quarter with $1 million on hand. That total, though, lags behind other incumbents, and even his own fundraising numbers at the same point during his last run.

Grassley, too, has unsettled the GOP's efforts in Iowa, leaving his decision for the fall and Republicans-in-waiting less time to potentially succeed him if he chooses to bow out.

The 87-year-old senator told reporters in February he expects to decide on whether he'll seek another term "sometime in September, October or November" of this year, according to the Des Moines Register.

Amid his uncertainty, Grassley raised less than half of the total he raised around the same time in 2015, when he last ran for reelection, though his early fundraising efforts have wavered over the years. He maintains a steady amount in the bank with $2 million on hand as of the end of March for a possible pursuit of another term.

Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said he doesn't believe Grassley has arrived at a decision yet, but he has not seen him take "his foot off the pedal" in terms of access or activity.

"Whatever he decides to do, he will put more emphasis on what's important for the people of Iowa than he does himself," he said.

The delay among incumbents isn't only in swing states though, particularly with Trump promising political revenge against his critics, including those within his own party. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the minority whip and second-highest ranking Senate Republican, hasn't yet officially announced he's running for reelection after Trump openly encouraged a challenger against him.

In the red state, Republicans are favored but as Thune, who has long maintained an eight-figure stockpile, keeps the party waiting he also has amassed a war chest of $14 million in the first quarter of the year -- a possible signal of where his campaign could be heading.

Democrats eye open seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio

In Pennsylvania, outgoing Republican Sen. Pat Toomey's soon-to-be vacant seat opened up a scramble to take his place. Among the growing ranks of Democratic contenders either potentially or formally jostling for the seat are Reps. Conor Lamb, Chrissy Houlahan and Madeleine Dean.

Both Lamb and Houlahan have said they are mulling over a possible promotion, while Dean told The Hill last month she is "keeping an open mind."

Leading the trio of Democratic potential hopefuls in fundraising is Houlahan, raising over $583,000 in the first quarter and amassing a war chest of $3.5 million, a big jump from where she was at this point in 2019.

Lamb, who represents a Pittsburgh-area district after first winning a seat in Congress in a 2018 special election, doubled his first quarter fundraising haul from 2019 and has $1 million in the bank. But he is trailing Houhalan in both the amounts he raised and on hand. Dean's campaign reported a far more modest fundraising sum this quarter and entered April with just $575,000 in the bank, a total that doesn't appear to suggest she's decidedly readying for a Senate bid.

If any one of these House Democrats enter the crowded race for the nomination, there is already a fundraiser setting a high bar. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who launched his Senate campaign in February, raised a whopping $4 million by the end of March.

On the Republican side, Reps. Mike Kelly and Guy Reschenthaler, both Trump loyalists, are also possible contenders. Although neither Kelly nor Reschenthaler have ramped up their fundraising since the November election, both headed into April with more than $500,000 on hand, which could provide much-needed fuel to a nascent Senate campaign.

In nearby Ohio, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who mounted a short-lived presidential bid in 2019, is seriously considering a bid for the Senate, eyeing the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Back in February, Ryan said he'd "have more to say in the coming weeks" on a potential announcement, but he still appears to be taking his time.

For candidates like Ryan or Lamb, an already tough reelection campaign in the House is further complicated by the decennial redistricting process. With both Pennsylvania and Ohio expected to lose a district, the two Democrats are facing a likely reality in which their district may disappear or become far redder in the mapmaking process, possibly pushing them closer toward a Senate campaign.

With a national profile and an increasing fundraising prowess, Ryan is considered a formidable contender in a possible Senate race. He brought in more than $1.2 million in the first quarter and boasts over $1 million in the bank.

Sun Belt outlines key targets next year

In Arizona and Florida, two states that help shape the contours of the Senate battlefield and where the influence of Trump will likely be tested, a batch of potential candidates could be bracing for highly competitive races.

Arizona Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar, two of Trump's most unrelenting supporters -- both backed the efforts in Congress to overturn the presidential election results -- have expressed an interest in taking on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.

The freshman senator is seeking a full six-year term in the midterms after defeating former GOP Sen. Martha McSally last November, flipping the seat and helping to deliver the majority for his party.

Kelly is now a top-tier target for Republicans, but he starts the cycle with an early edge. He raked in nearly $4.4 million in the first quarter, ending the period with also nearly $4.4 million on hand.

Any rival against Kelly will have a long way to go. Neither Biggs nor Gosar topped $300,000 in money raised in the first quarter of this year. But Biggs is starting out this year with a bigger sum in the bank -- $745,000 -- plus $40,000 in debt. Gosar, meanwhile, only has $62,000 on hand.

Further east, the opportunity to take on Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who earned Trump's "Complete and Total Endorsement," is luring some congressional Democrats into possible bids for higher office.

Rep. Val Demings, who represents a central Florida district in and around Orlando, said last month she's "seriously considering" a possible bid against Rubio or Gov. Ron DeSantis, another top ally of Florida's most prominent resident.

"I have made no definite decisions yet," Demings told the Democratic Club of North Florida.

But she isn't the lone Florida Democrat possibly ogling a new job. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who represents a neighboring district to Demings and leads a moderate faction of House Democrats known as the "Blue Dog" coalition, is also weighing a Senate bid.

She's even appearing to take preliminary steps before launching a statewide campaign against Rubio, announcing in February a virtual listening effort with events across the state.

Demings and Murphy are essentially running even in the money race, with the pair raising close to $350,000 through March and collecting more than $1 million in the bank. The latest haul is a particularly notable sum for Demings, who rarely raises more than $100,000 so early in the election cycle.

But the two face an uphill climb. Rubio brought in $1.6 million in the first quarter with $3.9 million on hand -- running on the strength of his incumbency and ties to Trump to set up a significant advantage over his challengers.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House on Friday, making it the first in-person foreign leader to visit during his presidency.

"I greatly appreciate the chance to spend time with you in person and to make our exchange of ideas face to face," Biden said during a formal press conference in the Rose Garden. "There's no substitute for face-to-face discussions."

The visit capped off a week of major foreign policy decisions from the president, announcing all U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11 and imposing wide-ranging sanctions on Russia over election interference, hacking and other "harmful foreign activities."

But it also came on the heels of the latest deadly mass shooting in the U.S. after a 19-year-old gunman killed eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis Thursday night.

"Last night and into the morning in Indianapolis, yet again families had to wait to hear word about the fate of their loved ones," Biden said in a statement. "What a cruel wait and fate that has become too normal and happens every day somewhere in our nation."

Biden ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff at the White House, making it the third time in his presidency he's done so for a mass shooting, and a week after he rolled out limited actions to address gun violence in the country. He grew defensive Friday afternoon when asked in the Rose Garden whether he felt the need to reprioritize his legislative agenda, and to place gun reform ahead of his current push on infrastructure, saying, "I'm not gonna to give up till it's done."

"I've never not prioritized this," Biden said. "No one has worked harder to deal with the violence used by individuals using weapons than I have."

The Democratic-controlled House has passed two gun-control bills and Biden urged the Senate "to step up and act," reiterating his support for universal background checks, among other reforms.

"I strongly, strongly urge my Republican friends in the Congress who even refused to bring up the House passed bill to bring it up now," he said. "This has to end. It's a national embarrassment."

Suga also weighed in on the latest shooting during a meeting earlier in the day.

"I would like to express my condolences to the victims and my sympathies to the families," he said. "Innocent citizens must not be exposed to any such violence."

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 89% of Americans support requiring background checks for all gun buyers, which is similarly high among Republicans at 84%.

During their meetings throughout the day, the two leaders said they spoke about a number of issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and how they could take on challenges from North Korea and China.

"We're gonna work together to prove that democracies can still compete and win in the 21st century," said Biden. "We can deliver for our people in the face of a rapidly changing world."

Biden previously held virtual bilateral meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- The Justice Department has sued former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone and his wife, Nydia, for $2 million dollars in unpaid taxes.

The suit alleges that the Stones owe the money through Drake Ventures, an LLC set up by the Stones. The DOJ says they did not pay taxes through this LLC from 2007 to 2011 and in 2018.

"They used Drake Ventures to receive payments that are payable to Roger Stone personally, pay their personal expenses, shield their assets, and avoid reporting taxable income to the IRS," the suit says.

Days before he was scheduled to report to a federal penitentiary in Georgia, former President Donald Trump commuted Stone's 40-month prison sentence for obstructing justice, witness tampering and multiple counts of lying to Congress in Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Stone was then issued a full presidential pardon on Dec. 23, nullifying the conviction, just weeks before Trump left office.

The Justice Department said that after Stone was charged criminally they used Drake Ventures to purchase their condo.

The DOJ said that the Stones lived a "lavish lifestyle" despite having unpaid taxes.

"Although they used funds held in Drake Ventures accounts to pay some of their taxes, the Stones' use of Drake Ventures to hold their funds allowed them to shield their personal income from enforced collection and fund a lavish lifestyle despite owing nearly $2 million in unpaid taxes, interest and penalties."

Stone met with Trump at his club in West Palm Beach in late December to personally thank the president for commuting and pardoning him.

"My wife and I both had the opportunity to thank the president personally for righting the injustice of my conviction in a Soviet-style show trial, which featured the epic bias of the judge who withheld exculpatory evidence from my defense, misconduct by the jury forewoman and substantial misconduct by the prosecutors," Stone told ABC News at the time.

Stone made headlines again in the days following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol after he was seen in a video first unearthed by ABC News flanked by a man with ties to the Oath Keepers militia group outside a Washington, D.C., hotel before the riot. That man, Roberto Minuta, was later arrested for his part in the insurrection.

ABC News' Ali Dukakis, Alex Mallin, Aaron Katersky and Olivia Rubin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden is backtracking on his proposal earlier this year to drastically increase the number of refugees admitted in the coming months to 62,500, leaving in place a historically low limit set by former President Donald Trump as thousands of refugees wait abroad.

Instead, he will keep the Trump-era cap in place at 15,000 people for the current fiscal year, which lasts until the end of September, according to a senior Biden administration official.

Doing so puts Biden on track to oversee possibly the lowest number of refugee admissions in the program's near 45-year history, despite his promises to reignite "the United States' moral leadership on refugee issues."

The White House defended the decision by pointing to Trump's destruction of the refugee resettlement program, although resettlement agencies rejected that reasoning, and the situation at the southern U.S. border, which the administration previously spent weeks downplaying.

The decision leaves tens of thousands of refugees waiting abroad -- in camps or elsewhere -- even as communities across the U.S. stand ready to accept them. In the two months since Biden signed an executive order to reignite the refugee program, hundreds of refugees have been in limbo after their travel to the U.S. was canceled pending a decision from Biden.

Some 35,000 refugees who have already been vetted and cleared for travel to the U.S. will wait overseas, with over 100,000 more in the pipeline unsure how long they will have to wait as well, according to the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency.

After Democrats blasted the announcement with unusually fierce criticism of a president from their own party, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Biden's decision "has been the subject of some confusion."

"For the past few weeks, he has been consulting with his advisors to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and October 1," Psaki said in the written statement.

She said that "given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on" a federal office that handles refugees, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, Biden's "initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely."

Psaki for the first time also said that "we expect the president to set a final, increased refugee cap for the remainder of this fiscal year by May 15."

But just last week, Psaki told reporters that, "yes," the White House was still committed to raising the cap to 62,500: "The president remains committed to raising the cap," she said on April 8.

Democrats blasted Friday's announcement in unusually strong criticism of a president from their own party.

"Completely and utterly unacceptable," Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted. "Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise. Upholding the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump admin, incl the historically low + plummeted refugee cap, is flat out wrong. Keep your promise."

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who herself is a refugee from Somalia, called Biden's decision "shameful."

"It is simply unacceptable and unconscionable that the Biden Administration is not immediately repealing Donald Trump’s harmful, xenophobic, and racist refugee cap," Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said. "President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity."

Biden's February executive order pledged to admit 125,000 refugees annually starting next fiscal year, and a White House official told ABC News Friday he was still committed to doing so.

But around the same time, the Biden administration sent a report to Congress that proposed raising the maximum number of refugees allowed in this fiscal year to 62,500.

Now, however, the White House says that the influx of unaccompanied minors on the southern border has made it difficult for them to raise the number at all. The White House also blamed Trump for decimating the resettlement program in the U.S., while the senior administration official cited the COVID-19 pandemic without elaborating.

Psaki said Friday that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement "does do management and has personnel working on both issues" -- the border and refugees -- "and so, we have to ensure that there is capacity and ability to manage both."

But while one division of HHS helps manage refugees and asylum seekers, refugees come from abroad and go through a different system than migrants seeking asylum after entering U.S. territory.

"Refugee resettlement has nothing to do with what is happening at the border. There exists a national network of organizations, churches and state offices who have decades of experience resettling refugees," said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group.

If anything, keeping a historically low refugee admissions cap in place could exacerbate the situation at the border, according to Dr. Austin Kocher, a research professor at Syracuse University, who said the decision could “prompt still more refugees to attempt to come through the asylum system, placing an even heavier burden on the U.S. immigration court system.”

Psaki also said Friday "the other piece that has been a factor is that it took us some time to see and evaluate how ineffective, or how trashed, in some ways, the refugee processing system had become. And so, we had to rebuild some of those muscles and put it back in place."

But resettlement agencies have told ABC News that they could meet Biden’s proposed 62,500 cap with help from the administration -- something the administration doesn’t seem intent on providing.

"While it is true the Trump administration left the resettlement infrastructure in tatters, we feel confident and able to serve far more families than this order accounts for," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, the head of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the largest national resettlement agencies.

Friday’s decision followed reports this week that said Biden had delayed raising the cap because he was concerned about the “optics” of letting more refugees in while also letting unaccompanied minors on the border stay in the country.

It also came after Omar, Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez and 43 other Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Biden earlier Friday calling on him to immediately raise the cap to 62,500.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said that Biden slow walking a decision "has had serious repercussions" -- potentially leading to even fewer than 15,000 refugees being admitted this fiscal year.

One thing that is changing, though, is how the 15,000 slots for this year will be split up among different regions, according to the senior administration official. Trump had blocked many Muslim and African refugees by prioritizing smaller groups of refugees, like Iraqi Christians. The new allocation will prioritize them, according to the senior administration official, which they say will allow the 15,000 cap to be met more quickly.

Specifically, Biden will fill 7,000 slots for refugees from Africa, where a huge amount of people are displaced by conflict, climate change, and more, and 3,000 for Latin America and the Caribbean, where the Venezuela migration crisis threatens to overtake the number of folks fleeing Syria.

The official said the Biden administration was open to increasing the 15,000 number, if needed to address an "unforeseen emergency situation."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan violated the federal government's ethics rules by requesting staff carry out personal favors, according to the State Department inspector general's office.

The federal watchdog had been undertaking the investigation of the Pompeos for years, leading to fiery criticism of the agency from the former top U.S. diplomat and leading Republican politician.

In an interview with the watchdog's staff, he defended his and his wife's actions as asking "small simple" tasks of a "friend," a longtime aide who worked in the department and carried out most errands.

The report, obtained by ABC News, documented over 100 instances of Mike or Susan Pompeo assigning that aide and other staffers personal errands, including booking dinner reservations or salon appointments, mailing personal Christmas cards, and purchasing things such as flowers or a t-shirt -- some details that ABC News first reported in September.

Federal ethics standards and the State Department's own rules prohibit asking subordinates to conduct personal favors or use government resources for private gain, although the Pompeos don't appear to have violated any laws.

"While these standards are important to minimize the risk of coercion in any supervisor-employee relationship, compliance with them is especially critical when the supervisor is the senior-most official in an organization, like the Secretary of State, who is imbued with considerable power and authority," the report said.

The Office of the Inspector General, or OIG, first launched its investigation in 2019 after receiving a whistleblower complaint that Pompeo was "misusing U.S. Department of State resources," including by assigning tasks "of a personal nature."

At the center is a longtime Pompeo aide named Toni Porter, who is unnamed in the report as a "Senior Advisor." She was hired by Pompeo in May 2018 as a staffer, but "on an almost daily basis" his wife Susan assigned Porter tasks, even though Susan Pompeo was not a federal employee.

Beyond Porter, Susan Pompeo made requests of several other staffers, all of whom told the OIG they believed assignments from her came at the secretary's direction, meaning they were obliged to carry them out as well.

The tasks assigned "had no apparent connection to the official business of the Department and, thus, appear inconsistent with the Standards of Ethical Conduct regarding use of a subordinate employee's time," the OIG found.

Among the scores of incidents documented in the 26-page report, the OIG reported that Porter printed photos for Susan Pompeo to give as gifts, ordered flowers and a t-shirt for friends, planned personal events at their home, and arranged tours of the department and other Washington sites for politically-affiliated guests.

Porter also provided care for the Pompeos' dog, made salon appointments for Susan Pompeo, and help draft a medical school letter of recommendation.

The most common task was making restaurant reservations, which happened on at least 30 occasions, and purchasing event tickets, the OIG said, but it's unclear if that violated rules, given security concerns for the secretary of state.

"Further legal guidance to employees is warranted as to whether performing such tasks are an appropriate use of official time," the OIG said.

It also requested a formal determination by the agency's legal adviser's office on the use of federal money to purchase gifts for the Pompeos friends. In two instances, Susan Pompeo had Porter buy gifts using department funds for dinner parties the Pompeos were attending -- something that may further violate rules, the OIG said.

There is a similarly murky incident involving the Pompeos' son, Nick. He paid a reduced rate for a hotel when joining his father at West Point, the U.S. military academy, for a football game, even though he is not a government employee -- "suggest[ing] that the Pompeos may have been the beneficiaries of a solicitation of a hotel discount for their son, in violation of" federal ethics rules, the OIG said.

The Pompeos' lawyer, William Burck, dismissed a draft version of the report in a letter to the OIG earlier this month that was obtained by ABC News.

"At best, the Draft Report amounts to little more than a compilation of picayune complaints cherry-picked by the drafters in an effort to twist innocent, routine and even praise-worthy behavior into something nefarious," wrote Burck. "At its worst, it is rife with deliberate misstatements and half-truths concocted to support the drafters' seemingly politically motivated goal to find purported ethical lapses by Mr. Pompeo."

Burck called Porter Susan Pompeo's "friend of almost 30 years" and tasks assigned to her "de minimis interactions," using a Latin legal term for minor things.

But the OIG disagreed: "The sheer number of such requests, when aggregated, indicates that a non de minimis amount of time was expended by Department employees for the personal benefit of the Pompeos," the OIG said -- adding that while Pompeo cast it as a personal favor, Porter told investigators she did so "because she believed she had to as part of her official duties."

It also documented instances of other staffers completing errands for the Pompeos, including driving a friend to pick up dinner and completing the Pompeo family's personal Christmas card.

During an interview with OIG staff, Mike Pompeo dismissed that last incident, which involved a Foreign Service officer working over the weekend to envelope, address, and mail Christmas cards, as a "tiny task" and said he reimbursed the department the cost of the cards.

The staff were not reimbursed, however, for their "non-duty time when performing these tasks," the OIG said.

Pompeo's interview with the OIG was in late December, three months after the watchdog requested to sit down with the secretary. That delay meant the investigation, which had concluded in August 2020, was not finalized for publication until this month.

Throughout his tenure, Pompeo was at war with the OIG, having its longtime chief Steve Linick, a career civil servant, fired in May 2020. Pompeo accused Linick of leaking details of investigations to media outlets, which Linick denied, and of pursuing probes outside of his scope.

In addition to looking into the Pompeos' personal errands, Linick oversaw the launch of a probe into Susan Pompeo's travels with the secretary on official visits -- finding that the department lacked documentation that her presence was properly authorized on most of the trips she made.

During Linick's tenure, the OIG also began investigating Pompeos use of an emergency authority to bypass Congress and sell $8 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In both instances, Pompeo tried to preempt the watchdog's findings by releasing selected quotes that appeared to exonerate him before the report was published, even as the final version told a fuller, more nuanced story.

ABC News's Katherine Faulders contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- Just a few days before every adult in the U.S. will become eligible to get a coronavirus vaccine on Monday, the White House stressed how important those shots are to beating back the pandemic -- especially in recent weeks, as the more transmissible B-117 variant has rapidly become the most dominant and new cases hover near 70,000 per day.

"All roads to defeating the pandemic go through the path of successfully and quickly vaccinating the country," White House COVID adviser Andy Slavitt said at a White House briefing on Friday.

The good news is the U.S. has an ample supply of vaccines, even with the recent pause of Johnson & Johnson vaccines. More than one-third of the total population has already gotten one shot, while 80% of the highest-risk demographic, adults 65 and older, has received one shot. The remaining states that haven't opened eligibility to all adults will do so on April 19.

"I am proud of the progress we've made," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at the briefing. "But we must continue to get many more people vaccinated."

That's because vaccinations are still nowhere near where they need to be to hit "herd immunity," and quickly-spreading, potentially deadlier variants such as the B-117, first discovered in the U.K., have taken hold in the U.S.

The latest CDC data shows that it accounted for 44% of cases during the last week of March, but Walensky said on Friday that the number is "certainly higher" now than then.

In Michigan, which currently has the most cases per population in the country, the number of B-117 cases has doubled since the last week of March. Nationwide, cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to tick up. Just four weeks ago, the seven-day average of cases was around 53,000. As of Friday, it was just below 70,000.

Hospitalizations had also increased 5-8% since the week before, and deaths were over 700 people a day for the third day in a row, Walensky said.

"The increasing trends in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are very concerning, and they threaten the progress we've already made," she said.

For its part, the White House announced it will be investing $1.7 billion to do more genomic sequencing and identify variant spread, which the U.S. was woefully unprepared to do a few months ago. The funding will come from the American Rescue Plan, the nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that Biden recently signed into law.

"Our ability to spot variants as they emerge and spread is vital, particularly as we aim to get ahead of dangerous variants before they emerge, as they are in the Midwest right now," Slavitt said.

"Right now, these variants account for nearly half of all COVID-19 cases in the United States. And we need more capacity in our public health system to identify and track these mutations," he said.

The White House coronavirus response team also warned that loosening restrictions was contributing to the spread, and urged people to mask-up, wash their hands and get vaccinated.

"Some of these increases are as a result of relaxed prevention efforts in states across the country, such as relaxed mask mandates or loosened restrictions on indoor restaurant seating," Walensky said.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, also at Friday's briefing, said the U.S. was increasing funding to areas that had been hit disproportionately by COVID-19, including $4 billion in funding to the Indian Health System. Though the IHS has impressively distributed 1 million vaccines in Indian Country, recent data showed that American Indians and Alaska Natives suffered devastating loss when the pandemic was at its worst.

According to a recent CDC report, they were 3.5 times more likely to get COVID than white people and more than four times as likely to be hospitalized as a result of COVID-19.

Murthy said the steady increase in cases over the last month had him more concerned than the J&J pause, which was put into place on Tuesday after the CDC and FDA found that out of the nearly 7 million people who got the J&J shot, at least 6 patients suffered blood clots roughly 6-13 days afterward.

The pause could last at least a few more weeks, according to an independent panel of CDC experts that on Wednesday decided to wait and see if more patients developed symptoms before recommending next steps on the vaccine.

"As much attention as the J&J news has received though, what I'm most concerned about, the numbers which are most on my mind are the rising cases and hospitalizations among those who are not vaccinated," Murthy said.

He underscored the positive news, however, which is that the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world with three vaccine options and hundreds of millions of doses.

"We're really fortunate to have highly effective vaccines and a system that's working day and night to keep us safe. It gives me faith that we will make it through this pandemic together," Murthy said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden, faced with yet another mass shooting on his watch, said Friday that the news of at least eight Americans killed in Indianapolis on Thursday night has "become too normal."

"Too many Americans are dying every single day from gun violence," Biden said in a written statement. "It stains our character and pierces the very soul of our nation."

Biden said that he had been briefed on the shooting at the FedEx facility in Indianapolis, and ordered the flags lowered to half-staff in honor of those who died "just two weeks after I gave the last such order."

"Last night and into the morning in Indianapolis, yet again families had to wait to hear word about the fate of their loved ones," Biden said. "What a cruel wait and fate that has become too normal and happens every day somewhere in our nation. Gun violence is an epidemic in America. But we should not accept it. We must act."

Just last week, in the wake of mass shootings in Boulder and Atlanta, Biden announced actions to reduce gun violence including directing the Department of Justice to regulate the sale of ghost guns, but there are only limited actions a president can take without Congress passing legislation.

Biden, who has faced pressure to call more forcefully for gun control measures, said in his Friday statement that it's up to Congress act next, including on some gun control legislation that has already been passed by the House.

"I also urged Congress to hear the call of the American people -- including the vast majority of gun owners -- to enact commonsense gun violence prevention legislation, like universal background checks and a ban of weapons of war and high-capacity magazines," Biden said.

Biden was pressed on what he was going to do to tackle gun control in late March during his first formal press conference. Biden sidestepped the question, saying while he would pursue the issue, infrastructure was his next major policy goal.

"Successful presidents -- better than me -- have been successful, in large part, because they know how to time what they’re doing -- order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done," Biden said.

Biden said that gun control was a "long-term problem."

"And what we're going to be able to do, God willing, is now begin, one at a time, to focus on those as well," Biden said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- Congress could soon get answers as to how financier Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide in Bureau of Prisons custody in August 2019, according to testimony given by BOP Director Michael Carvajal at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday.

Epstein died while being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, and almost two years after his death, the BOP has not yet provided the customary report about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Two Metropolitan Correctional Center officers were charged in November 2019 with destroying evidence in connection with the Epstein suicide. They have both pleaded not guilty.

During the hearing, Carvajal told Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., there was no case that represents a "crisis of public trust" more than Epstein’s suicide.

Given Epstein's high-profile for being a well-known fancancier charged with sex trafficking of minors, his suicide led to serious questions over how he could have been allowed to take his life while in BOP custody.

The Department of Justice inspector general has been investigating the circumstances surrounding Epstein's suicide.

Carvajal said prior to Thursday's hearing he had his deputy director call the DOJ inspector general, who said the investigation is "on hold" until the June trial of two corrections officers takes place.

Carvajal said it would be "inappropriate" to discuss the circumstances surrounding Epstein's death before the trial and while the inspector general has paused the investigation.

"Here’s what I will commit to: that after that investigation is over, and all of these things have been appropriately done I will absolutely follow up with you on anything regarding what we could do better or different," he said. "I don't think it'd be appropriate for me to get into any of that right now. So, it’s under litigation, I’ve been advised not to speak about it."

Sasse also asked about Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell’s safety in federal prison.

Maxwell was arrested by federal authorities last year in New Hampshire and is facing a six-count federal indictment alleging that she conspired with Epstein in a multi-state sex trafficking scheme involving three unnamed minor victims between 1994 and 1997. Prosecutors contend Maxwell not only "befriended" and later "enticed and groomed multiple minor girls to engage in sex acts with Epstein, through a variety of means and methods," but that she was also, at times, "present for and involved" in the abuse herself.

Carvajal did not discuss her circumstances in prison but said her relationship to the case has no bearing on the BOP's duty to keep her safe.

"We are going to apply the appropriate security that we think we need to do to protect that individual, protect the staff, protect everyone. And we do that individually assessing these cases," he said.

Maxwell was given paper clothes upon checking into the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn last year over fears that she might take her own life, two federal law enforcement sources confirmed to ABC News.

Carvajal said that the BOP has learned from the Epstein incident.

"The answer is we learned lessons from that and we have made adjustments, it's just not appropriate for me to discuss them," Carvajal said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(ATLANTA) -- A former Democratic state lawmaker who changed his party affiliation after endorsing Donald Trump's reelection announced a bid to challenge Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, one of Trump's top Republican targets in the 2022 election cycle.

"The governor's office has failed to fight for you and for me," Jones said in Atlanta on Friday. "We're in the midst of a battle that will determine the future, not only in just Georgia but the future of America and our great experiment known as democracy."

"I am planting my flag on the hallowed ground of the Georgia State Capitol," he continued. "I'm officially announcing my candidacy for governor of the great state of Georgia."

Jones boasted before supporters that he would beat prominent Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has not officially launched a campaign for governor, in a potential general election matchup.

Before formally announcing his insurgent campaign, Jones, who is one of the former president's most prominent Black supporters, was teasing a run for governor for weeks. On Wednesday, he shared a video on Twitter promoting his Friday announcement in Atlanta with a video of Trump, standing in front of a crowd at Mar-a-Lago last week, asking Jones, "When are you announcing? When are you announcing?"

Calling Trump a "fighter" at his announcement event, Jones told the crowd that the former president "sends his regards" to Georgia. He also made clear he supports an "America First" agenda, leaning into his support for Trump in the hopes of earning the backing of his conservative base in the Republican primary.

Jones endorsed Trump almost a year ago to the day while he was still serving as a Democratic representative in the Georgia General Assembly, drawing immediate backlash from his party. Since then, he's stood staunchly behind the former president, including Trump's baseless claims that rampant election fraud cost him the 2020 election -- an assertion that was disputed by federal and state officials, including Georgia's elections chief, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

While Raffensperger and Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan expressly and repeatedly rejected the election falsehoods Trump and GOP allies spread, Kemp found himself on the receiving end of much of the former president's unrelenting ire because the governor refused to back the false claims or call a special legislative session to address the election, which Trump demanded.

Jones helped perpetuate election falsehoods and claimed Trump would still be president if it weren't for Kemp. He has hounded Kemp on Twitter for not discontinuing the use of the Dominion Voting Systems ballot-marking devices, which are used for all in-person voting in Georgia and the source of one of the wildest election conspiracies. Far-right media organizations and allies of the president claimed Dominion machines flipped Trump votes to Biden votes. There is no evidence this happened and the company has since filed multiple defamation lawsuits seeking billions in damages.

Even if Jones nabs Trump's endorsement, he likely faces an uphill battle to defeat Kemp, who has secured recent political wins he'll surely tout on the campaign trail.

Since Kemp signed into law the sweeping, Republican-sponsored "Election Integrity Act of 2021," he's been on a media blitz defending the legislation and blasting Democrats, who've labeled the bill "Jim Crow 2.0," after corporations came out against it and the MLB decided to move its All-Star game and 2021 draft from Atlanta to Denver in protest.

The governor and other Republicans contend the bill expands voter access while bolstering election security, making it "easy to vote and hard to cheat." According to a January poll, 76% of Republican voters in Georgia believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. With this elections overhaul, Kemp can tell the GOP base that he took action to address their concerns.

That relationship isn't completely mended though. The local Republican parties in two, deep red Northwest Georgia counties, Whitfield and Murray, passed identical resolutions censuring Kemp last week.

"Because of Kemp's betrayal of President Trump and his unpopularity with the Trump GOP base, Kemp could end up costing the GOP the Governor's mansion because many Trump supporters have pledged not to vote for Kemp under any circumstances," the resolution read.

Jones' past affiliation with the Democratic Party, however, makes for a convenient -- and potentially effective -- line of attack for Kemp and his allies.

The Democrat-turned-Republican didn't officially switch parties until Jan. 6, announcing his decision during a speech at the "Save America" rally that preceded the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"I'm ready to go home to the party of Lincoln. I'm ready to go home to the party of Frederick Douglass. I'm ready to go home to the party of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott," Jones said at the rally, which Trump headlined. "I am officially joining the Republican Party."

But his opposition and criticism of the Democratic Party started months earlier.

Given a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, Jones claimed the Democratic Party "does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation," but said he's "part of a large and growing segment of the Black community who ... believe that Donald Trump is the president that America needs to lead us forward."

Trump endorsed one Republican primary challenger in Georgia already.

He immediately threw his weight behind Rep. Jody Hice, who represents the 10th Congressional District, after he announced he's running against Raffensperger on March 22. Like Jones, Hice backed Trump's election claims. He also objected to Congress counting the electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania after the attack on the Capitol.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- The United States on Thursday announced a sweeping series of sanctions against Russia over election interference, cyber hacking and other "harmful foreign activities," it said, including reports of Russia offering "bounties" for Taliban attacks against U.S. troops, and Russia's occupation and alleged human rights abuses in Crimea.

"I was clear with president Putin that we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so, I chose to be proportionate," President Joe Biden said Thursday afternoon from the East Room of the White House.

The president walked a fine line during his remarks, attempting to stand firm against Russia for their actions, while also balancing his speech with hopes of diplomacy and keeping an open dialogue between the two countries.

"The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship," he said.

The moves marked the first actions the United States has announced it has taken against Russia in reaction to last year's massive cyber hack against U.S. federal agencies, known as the SolarWinds breach, and for the "bounties" it had reportedly offered in Afghanistan. The U.S. for the first time formally blamed Russia for the hack, and it also for the first time said its intelligence agencies had determined Russia to be behind the bounties.

The White House said the U.S. would expel 10 personnel from Russia's diplomatic mission in Washington, including, "representatives of Russian intelligence services."

The U.S. also sanctioned "16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government," according to the U.S. Treasury Department. They include "disinformation outlets controlled by Russian intelligence services," the Russian "financier" and an "enabler" of the "troll farm" previously sanctioned for 2016 election interference, as well as a "known Russian agent," the administration said. The sanctions, the Treasury Department said, target "the private and state-owned companies" that "enable the Russian Intelligence Services' cyber activities."

In addition, the Treasury Department targeted Russia's sovereign wealth, prohibiting U.S. financial institutions from certain dealings with Russian sovereign debt.

The U.S. prohibition on American companies trading Russia's sovereign debt with the country's central bank -- an expansion of previous limits -- caused Russia's currency to slide Thursday.

Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, in a televised briefing, said U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan had been summoned to Moscow for a "difficult conversation."

Zakharova also said that a Russian response to the sanctions was "unavoidable."

"Such aggressive behavior, without question, will receive a decisive push back, a response to the sanctions is unavoidable," she said. "In Washington, they must realize that it's necessary to pay for the degradation of bilateral relations. Responsibility for what is happening lies entirely on the U.S."

Biden said that during a phone call on Tuesday he "urged" Russian President Vladimir Putin "to respond appropriately, not to exceed it" and that the U.S. would be ready to "move as well."

The U.S. also said Thursday that it was sanctioning "five individuals and three entities related to Russia's occupation of the Crimea region of Ukraine and its severe human rights abuses against the local population."

The sanctions came amid heightened concern about a massive buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine's border and in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that has been occupied by Russia since 2014.

Biden described his call with Putin on Tuesday as "candid" and "respectful," and also "strongly urged him to refrain from any military action" in Ukraine.

"Now is the time to de-escalate," he said. "The way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process."

Biden also said he invoked a conversation earlier this year in which he had warned his Russian counterpart that the United States would "respond" if it determined Russia was behind recent cyber intrusions and election interference in the United States.

"When President Putin called me in January -- after I was sworn in -- to congratulate me, I told him that my administration would be looking very carefully now that we had access to all the data and at the issues that -- to assess Russia's role and then determine what response we would make," he said.

During their call, Biden said he proposed they "meet in person this summer in Europe" for a summit, which he said both countries are now discussing.

"Out of that summit -- were it to occur and I believe it will -- the United States and Russia could launch a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security. We can address critical global challenges that require Russia and the United States to work together, including reining in nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, ending this pandemic globally and meeting the existential crisis of climate change," Biden said.

Senior Biden administration officials Thursday morning presented the sanctions against Russia as both "economically impactful" but also "proportionate," "tailored" and "measured."

"We have no desire to be in an escalatory cycle with Russia," an official told reporters. "We intend these responses to be proportionate and tailored to the specific past activities, past actions that Russia has taken. We have indicated that we seek a stable and predictable relationship going forward."

Thursday was the first time the U.S. officially attributed the SolarWinds hack to Russia. The breach compromised nine federal government agencies.

"Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) actors (also known as APT29, Cozy Bear, and The Dukes) frequently use publicly known vulnerabilities to conduct widespread scanning and exploitation against vulnerable systems in an effort to obtain authentication credentials to allow further access," an advisory from the Federal Bureau of Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and National Security Agency said. "This targeting and exploitation encompasses U.S. and allied networks, including national security and government-related systems."

They said that Russia was still involved in cyber actions against the United States and other allies.

The U.S. government, "critical infrastructure" and "allied networks are consistently scanned, targeted, and exploited by Russian state-sponsored cyber actors," they said.

A senior administration official also said that the U.S. intelligence community had assessed that Russia was behind financial incentives for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan – one of the impetuses for Thursday's sanctions – although the official noted the assessment was made with "low-to-moderate confidence" since it relied on information that detainees had shared and "the challenging operating environment in Afghanistan."

"Our conclusion is based on information and evidence of connections between criminal agents in Afghanistan and elements of the Russian government," the official said. "This information puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior."

ABC News' Patrick Reevell, Luke Barr and Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- A bill that will create a commission to study and make recommendations on how to best provide reparations to the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S. has taken a historic leap forward after being advanced by a House committee.

With a vote of 25 to 17, the bill, referred to as H.R. 40 passed in the House Judiciary Committee late Wednesday night. The bill still faces an uphill battle in becoming a law, but this milestone comes more than 30 years after it was first introduced.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, reflected on the "significant, historic moment" during a call with reporters Thursday organized by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Despite the insidious legacy of slavery in the U.S., Jackson Lee said the commission to study and develop reparations "is really not established in anger, it is not established in anguish."

"I believe that a true understanding of the history that many would like to discard and disregard will be enlightening to America and empowering," she said. "First of all, its status around the world will be further elevated, that we are willing to look back and to respond to that period that was called the original sin."

"We're giving America the opportunity for redemption, for repair, for restoration, for also understanding the new America, which is so multicultural," she added.

The congresswoman said she has been overwhelmed by the initial reporting and reactions to the advancement of H.R. 40, calling it "heartwarming" and a positive reflection of America.

Finally, Jackson Lee reiterated that the legislation is "a congressional commission appointed by the government to address the government's behavior of sanctioned slavery, sanctioned imperialism, sanctioned discrimination and sanctioned racism."

"It is not asking any neighbor for check," she said.

In a poignant moment during the markup Wednesday night, Jackson Lee held up a pocket Constitution as she spoke, reflecting on how the framework for the U.S. government "did not hold us as a whole person in its founding, even though we know that the opening statements in this Constitution says we ask and expect to create a more perfect union."

Tensions during the hours-long markup remained high as lawmakers would tangentially squabble over unrelated issues, namely reports on the potential expansion of the Supreme Court. Republican lawmakers also began objecting to H.R. 40 even before opening statements had begun.

Rep. Burgess Owens, a Black Republican from Utah who is against reparations, said during the markup that, "This concept that Black Americans have been used, abused and discarded by white people is bothersome to me."

"Reparations, when you take people's money that they've earned it, is punishment, it's theft," he added. "It's saying that because of your skin color, you owe me. That is not the American way. We're not racist people. This American country is based on meritocracy."

As issues of systemic racism continue to plague the U.S., advocates have renewed calls in recent years for government reparations to address the mounting inequities still faced by Black Americans.

As the debate is pushed mainstream, cities such as Asheville, North Carolina, and Evanston, Illinois, have recently adopted measures to provide redress at the local level.

Late last year, California green lit a law that establishes a task force to study and make recommendations on reparations -- legislation that is very similar to the framework of H.R. 40.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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(WASHINGTON) -- After writing a scathing report on Capitol Police preparedness for the Jan. 6 riot, Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton testified Thursday before the House Administration Committee.

"Our objective for this review is to determine the department established adequate measures for ensuring the safety and security to members of Congress, their staff and the Capitol Complex," Bolton said before the committee, calling for a "cultural change."

Bolton's report, reviewed by ABC News, said Capitol Police were ill-prepared for the events on Jan. 6, had faulty equipment and did not share intelligence.

Intelligence leading up to that date -- when a riot at the Capitol left five people dead and led to the second impeachment of then-President Donald Trump -- was not shared or acted upon, the inspector general found -- and some of the problems still persist.

"USCP did not clearly document channels for the distribution of intelligence up to the Chief of Police, down to line officers and across departmental entities," the report reads.

At Thursday's hearing, Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., blamed leadership for the problems that left Capitol Police "overrun" during the riot.

"We have a lot of work to do and we must do it quickly. January 6th was just absolutely unimaginable. And it can absolutely never, ever, ever happen again. Simply stated, Capitol Police were overrun," he said.

He added that Capitol Police "weren’t prepared for an insurrection" and said he blames leadership.

"I lay it at the feet of the sergeant-at-arms and most likely with the FBI. I don’t lay blame with the rank-and-file police officers. They did their jobs and they are to be commended. High-ranking leadership in the Capitol Police ... knew it. They knew it was going to happen, they failed to act on that intelligence."

The IG report found inconsistencies between the Capitol Police analysis report produced shortly before Jan. 6 and the executive summary of that report. Specifically, there was "alarming" language left out of the summary.

"Supporters of the current President see January 6, 2021, as the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election," the intelligence excluded from the summary reads. "This sense of desperation and disappointment may lead to more of an incentive to become violent."

A threat assessment attached to the Inspector General report makes clear that "Congress itself is the target."

"Unlike previous post-election protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counter-protesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th,” it said. “Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike."

Bolton on Thursday stressed the need for a Capitol Police intelligence bureau above and beyond the "intelligence division" that currently exists.

U.S. Capitol Police’s intelligence capabilities were not only in need of improvement, there were no standards set for the intelligence division, according to the report.

"The Department did not establish training, certification, or professional standards for its intelligence analysts," the report says.

In his testimony, Bolton stressed the need for additional training of Capitol Police officers and said a lack of training contributed to failures on Jan. 6.

"I believe, yes, training deficiencies put officers, our brave men and women, in a position not to succeed," he said.

Bolton said training should be a priority.

“Think of training as your locomotive," he said. "That's going to pull the rest of the department along."

"You can have all the window dressing you want but if your foundation is crumbling and leaking, it's not going to survive your home," he added.

Regarding calls for the National Guard on Jan. 6, appendices attached to the IG's report of a timeline provided by Capitol Police show Capitol Police Chief Steve Sund requested Guard help at 2:26 p.m., just as insurrectionists were breaking into the Capitol.

"We don’t like the optics of that," Army Staff Secretary Walter Pitt responded at the time, according to the report.

The Guard didn't arrive until hours later.

The inspector general's investigation found that the riot gear Capitol Police had access to was more than 20 years old in some cases. The riot shields used by some officers in the department’s Civil Disturbance Unit were shattered, various officers reported to the inspector general.

Officers also reported having no organized way to obtain non-lethal weapons to help quell the crowd and reported there was no way for riot shields stored off-site and brought to the Capitol on a bus to be distributed to officers due to a locked door.

In a statement on Wednesday, U.S. Capitol Police said the department welcomed the Inspector General review and that it has made some changes but "acknowledges much additional work needs to be done."

The report is one of three the IG is planning to produce on the Jan. 6 insurrection. Bolton said Thursday the Capitol Police department has not officially responded to the IG’s first report, but he expects it will.

The Capitol Police Union said earlier this month that the department is reeling from the events of Jan. 6 that left Officer Brian Sicknick dead and from the subsequent death of USCP Officer William "Billy" Evans, who died after a person rammed his car into a barricade outside the Capitol in early April.

"I could not be prouder of them. They continue to work even as we rapidly approach a crisis in morale and force numbers," Union Chairman Gus Papathanasiou said.

Bolton echoed that sentiment.

"Regardless, every day, they’re going to get up, put on that badge and assume their roles. It’s up to us to make sure they have the tools and train to accomplish that, but I have confidence."

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